NEW YORK—It’s been said of actors that they bring baggage to each new role, but they don’t have anything on tennis players. From their years in the juniors, pros begin to accumulate enough ghosts and demons that by their early twenties, many of them have become one-man haunted houses of squandered opportunities, personal grudges, cursed tournament grounds, and shots-that-should have been; by their thirties, it’s a wonder some of them can function under the enormity of it all.
For the third year in a row, Tommy Haas, he of the backward cap and age-defying career resurrection—at 35, he’s seeded 12th here—contested his first-round match on Court 17. Two years ago, he was two sets up against Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy when he lost his concentration, dropped the third, then recovered to win in four. Last year, he was up two sets to love against Ernst Gulbis, then gave up the next three sets in a letdown that sent him packing.
Today, the German once again opened his U.S. Open campaign on Court 17, this time against fellow veteran, 31-year-old Paul-Henri Mathieu, an Overlook Hotel of career disappointments—most memorably, his loss of a two-set lead to Mikhail Youzhny in the deciding rubber of the 2002 Davis Cup final.
If the lapses that troubled him on this court in years past were on Haas’ mind, he didn’t show it today, playing opportunistic tennis and taking it to Mathieu with smart serving, patient baseline rallies, and crafty net play. It all seemed to be going Haas’ way until, up a break and serving at 4-3 in the first set, he was distracted by a child in a courtside seat who, during his serving motion, got up to retrieve a ball that had landed in the stands at the end of the prior point. Haas double-faulted to hand the break back, and when he couldn’t get any sympathy from chair umpire Enric Molina, shouted “Hey!” at the kid, who tensed up, perhaps expecting a public scolding.
That might have been a turning point in the match, but fortunately for Haas, he was facing the famously fragile Frenchman. Mathieu went up 30-love in his next service game, then double-faulted three times in a row, setting up a break point that he converted for his opponent by putting the third ball of the ensuing point meekly into the net. From there, Haas served out the set, then broke in the first game of the second, setting the stage for the eventual 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 win.
Once the first set was in hand, victory never really seemed in doubt for Haas, or maybe it’s better said that defeat never really seemed in doubt for Mathieu. In addition to his run of double faults in that crucial 4-all game in the first set, he was called for four foot-faults, surrendered nine points in a row during a passage of play late in the third set, set up match point for Haas with an ill-advised challenge, and finally surrendered the match with—what else?—another double fault.
In the post-match interview, Haas gave a hint that some old demons might have been motivating him, after all. He came into the match with an 0-2 career head-to-head record against Mathieu, although they hadn’t played since 2005. Haas alluded to some personal problems Mathieu was facing—perhaps a reference to the fact that Mathieu's significant other was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and/or to a recent neck injury—but he went on to add that, “It was nice to get a win over him at least once in my career.”
The ghosts of Court 17 behind him, Haas, playing his 16th U.S. Open, advances to the second round.
IBM Stat of the Match: A match time of 94 minutes shows just how one-sided this contest was despite some entertaining rallies; two veterans as talented as this should have put on a better show.
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